First will come the inevitable transition period, or the crossover, as they call it in the Business. And when we say the Business, of course, we're talking about the Industry. One MTV executive has already suggested the next step will be midget mud wrestling. All right! Fabulous concept. Love it, love it, love it! Love him! But where is that concept taking us? Has anybody thought about how we're going to get Prince down in that mud for the video? Has anybody thought about that"!
The thing to do is keep all these ever-so-subtle concepts coming as long as the numbers keep saying: Pro wrestling, you look mah-velous!
And it does! Wrestling, the original sham-sport, has been in the midst of a boom since its fusion with rock began to roll last year. The "rock and wrestling connection," as MTV has dubbed this heady brew, has become the hottest thing in the Industry since the Video, dahlings. "Rock and wrestling," says World Wrestling Federation heavyweight champ Hulk Hogan. "It's not a dream, it's the way we live."
Fabulous concept, Hulkster! And more and more it's the way America lives. In the most recent Nielsen ratings, four of the nation's 10 top-rated cable-TV programs were wrestling shows. Two of them are produced by Vince McMahon Jr., commander in chief of the WWF; on the USA Network, McMahon's wrestling shows generate higher ratings than college basketball, tennis or hockey. The other two wrestling shows, which until last month were also McMahon productions, are on the WTBS superstation, where wrestling does better than college football. In Memphis, a Saturday morning wrestling show is the third-highest-rated television program, trailing only Dallas and Dynasty. And when Rowdy Roddy Piper, a 250-pound yapping adrenal gland, appeared last month on Boston's Sports Huddle, the switchboard at WHDH was swamped with a record 48,000 calls. Wrestling mania is also reflected in a proliferation of posters, product endorsements and talk-show appearances by America's burly new heroes, not to mention plenty of newspaper people-section pictures of Andy Warhol, Brian De Palma and Joe Piscopo watching the sleeper holds.
April 28, 1985
It scarcely matters that wrestling's reputed popularity with the quiche-and-Volvo crowd is largely the result of media manipulation. The man doing most of the manipulating is McMahon, who has given wrestling the upscale demographics—or the illusion of same—it never had before. Somehow McMahon and his WWF have convinced a good part of the press that the knuckledraggers who traditionally made up wrestling crowds have been booted out of the bleachers and replaced by Wharton graduates.
"The WWF is the force behind this new perception of wrestling," says Bob Costas, who recently announced a match in St. Louis for KMOX radio, the first bout the station had carried live in 22 years. "Like it or not, what's causing wrestling to go mainstream is the McMahon approach." McMahon is despised by pro wrestling purists and by rival promoters for turning wrestling into schlock and roll, but others see him as a visionary. "There's that fine line between genius and insanity," WWF announcer Mean Gene Okerlund says of McMahon, "and he walks it."
Very visual, Mean Gene! Love it to death! And isn't that what wrestling is really all about—walking the fine line between the ridiculous and the supine? The funny thing is, wrestling's cable ratings have been going through the roof at precisely the same time that some of the TV numbers for real sports have been declining, and something must be compelling viewers to tune in. "They're putting too many rules on everything now," says wrestling manager Bobby Heenan, hazarding a sociological insight. "No more sack dances, no spiking, no high fives. In wrestling they've got rules, but they're not too strict about enforcing them... what other sport lets you kick a guy when he's down?" That's simplistic, of course, but given the phenomenon we're dealing with here, probably as good an explanation for what's going on as any.
And so, until the big shakeout comes—when wrestling no longer needs rock and can slam-dance its own way to the top, or into oblivion, or to wherever it's heading—the thing to do is try to keep the matches interesting. As a concept, maybe you match Tito (the Burrito) Santana with Julio Iglesias in a Tijuana Stretcher match. How about David Lee Roth versus the Missing Link in a one-fall California Lobotomy match. Or Ravishing Rick Rude and Brutus Beefcake facing off against Madonna and Vanity in a Chippendales Intergender Bimbo Match. Excellent demographics. Mahvelous concept!
Before you know it, we've got Kamala the Ugandan Giant and Michael Jackson in a Steel Glove match, with closed-circuit locations at every nouvelle cuisine restaurant in the country. Fabulous! Kamala turns the kid inside out, but in the final frame of the video we see Michael teaching the Giant to moonwalk. Very visual! Finally, we build to the big benefit video for Ethiopian wrestlers and call it We Are the Hurled. Tasteless? Of course. For that one we'll need to have the biggest stars in the business. And when we say the business, we're talking about the Industry. Some of the names we'll need are:
HULK HOGAN—Zoomed to stardom after playing bad guy named Thunderlips in Rocky III. Hulkamania! Before that, was a journeyman heel wrestling under the name Sterling Golden. "I was a young kid, lost and misguided," explains Hulkster. But silent was Golden. Conversion followed in which Hulk developed "a relationship with the Big Dude upstairs." No more heel. Now he's the ultimate babyface to the baby-boomers, who don't seem to mind a hero with a receding hairline. Hulkamania! Not noted for wrestling technique. "His entire repertoire," says one critic, "consists of the Eye of the Tiger, a shredding muscle shirt, a few minutes of inept brawling and the infamous leg-drop finish out of nowhere." Tag-team partner is Mr. T. Between them not one decent head of hair.
ROWDY RODDY PIPER—The most contemptible of all wrestling heels. His prejudices are as unbounded as his mouth. The Bad Plaid was allegedly born in Scotland. Wears kilt into ring. Is hoot, mon. Reigning master of the stream-of-un-consciousness interview. When talking about wrestling, sounds like Robert Burns. "The first fight I had was just so I could eat. And as soon as they're finished with me, I'm a dead piece of meat." Says Hulk of archnemesis: "I don't know him personally, but I've heard his personal life isn't the greatest in the world. When you hate yourself, I guess you end up like Piper."
JIMMY (SUPERFLY) SNUKA—Born in Fiji Islands but left for America 20 years ago. "I took trip to Hawaii in a canoe, bruddah," Snuka says. "I just paddled over." Trip is 3,000 miles, allowing Snuka plenty of time to consider joining frequent-flyer program. In Hawaii entertained tourists by diving off cliffs. How high were cliffs? "Pretty high, bruddah." Now finishes off most matches by diving onto opponents from the top rope. Is why Superfly. In wrong business to be called Jimmy (the Dive) Snuka, anyway.
CLASSY FREDDIE BLASSIE—Manager. Also known as the Hollywood Fashion Plate because of ensembles he began wearing in the '50s. "Freddie Blassie looks like a drum major for a gay marching band," says fellow manager Heenan. Blassie insists Liberace "stole all his ideas from me." He may be right. "Lib has some lovely creations now," Blassie says wistfully. "I couldn't keep up with that. I always had to throw mine in a suitcase and go on to the next town." Major contribution to sport was coining the term "pencil-necked geeks." When still wrestling, had every rib on right side of body broken, five on left side—one of which just missed piercing heart. Lost right kidney, has only 30% vision in right eye, and seventh through 11th thoracic vertebrae are permanently fused. Has had last rites administered twice and has been stabbed at least 20 times by fans. Used to spend six hours a day at beach but has own tanning bed now. "I get skin cancer every three or four years," he says evenly. "They just cut part of me off and tell me to stay outta the sun." Slayed 'em in Tokyo in his wrestling days. "Twenty-seven people dropped dead watching me one week in Japan," Blassie says. "In my whole career 92 people dropped dead of heart attacks. My ambition was to kill 100, and I failed."
NIKOLAI VOLKOFF—On recent flight from Cleveland to Boston, plane's engines overheated, forcing emergency landing in Buffalo. When TV crews interviewing passengers got to Volkoff, he began shouting, "This never happen in Russia, only U.S.A." In March was rumored to have gone to Soviet Union to attend funeral of Konstantin Chernenko. "I told him to just sit still and one day he'll be in charge over there," says Blassie, who manages tag team of Volkoff and Iron Sheik. "Everyone that drops dead, Volkoff moves up a notch." Makes crowd sit through grinding rendition of the Soviet national anthem before every match.
THE IRON SHEIK—"The Sheik is a great wrestler," says Blassie, "but he's not all there." Wears Arabian Nights wrestling boots with curled toes. When Sheik stomps boots against mat, secret spring releases iron plate in toes, said to result in instant death for his opponents. Born in Teheran, was a member of the Iranian Olympic Greco-Roman team in 1968. Was supposedly bodyguard for Shah, but Sheik says he and Shah were just in same aerobics dance class, and now he's big fan of Ayatollah. Noted for his dreaded Camel Clutch—which is said to draw all the blood out of a victim's brain, assuming there is one—Sheik once reigned as heavyweight champ of the WWF, a fact that "disgusted the entire professional wrestling fraternity," according to an obviously disillusioned New York Times.
SGT. SLAUGHTER—Started as Marine Corps DI heel who threatened "punks and maggots" in stands that if he ever got them in his platoon he'd make them "kiss my combat boots." Became a babyface by taking on reviled minions of Communism and battling Iron Sheik in famed Boot Camp match. Now bills himself as "the greatest living American hero," distinction "living" in deference to the Duke. Does commercial for Statue of Liberty fund-raising drive. "There's only one lady in my life," says the Sarge, "and her name is Liberty." The Sarge defected from WWF stable in January, insisting he wanted a bigger piece of merchandising of his Cobra Corps paramilitary paraphernalia.
BOBBY (THE BRAIN) HEENAN—Manager, also known as the Weasel. Travels wrestling circuit over 300 days a year. Avoids being bothered on airplanes by pretending to be dead. Is happily married despite obvious strains of life on the road. "If he didn't travel 300 days a year I'd probably go insane," says Mrs. Weasel. "People think these guys aren't really crazy, but they are. My mother won't even come to visit us anymore when Bobby's at home. She can't stand the bedlam." Wishes he had started career wearing hood "so I could go to more normal events in the community, like church." Turn-offs: "I'm tired of seeing Big John Studd naked. Enough's enough."
CAPTAIN LOU ALBANO—Manager. Has pierced face, with rubber bands hanging from tiny rings and safety pins in left cheek. Once, after beating some tag-team opponents into submission with a whip, he purposely cut his arm and let them suck his blood. Now trains his charges on more conventional regimen of unborn goat's milk. Has been in three rock videos.
ANDRE THE GIANT—Drank 127 beers in Reading, Pa. hotel bar, then passed out cold in lobby. At 7'4" and 505 pounds—and rumored to be still growing—he was too big for hotel staff to move him. So they threw sheet over his body and used him as lobby art until he came to. Recently, in New York City, people started ripping his clothes off as he walked down street to French restaurant. Had to jump in police car to escape. At restaurant he and three friends ran up $2,700 tab. Frequently has problem with maids sneaking into his hotel room to photograph him while he's sleeping.
BIG JOHN STUDD—Carries around plastic sandwich bag containing locks of Andre the Giant's hair. Studd, the Weasel and tag-team partner Ken Patera actually cut Andre's hair while the Giant lay unconscious (in ring, not hotel lobby), thus "raping his dignity," according to Vince McMahon. How is Studd different from other wrestlers? "I'm 6'10", and I'm a natural blond," he says. Also, he's such a bitch.
At Madison Square Garden three years ago, ring announcer Howard Finkel stepped to the microphone between bouts to ask fans not to throw things into the ring, at which point a chair went flying past his head. "That moment pretty much summed up the sport for me," longtime fan Taylor Ganz says appreciatively.
Wrestling has always attracted a very special group of fans, many of whom may eventually be eligible for parole. Unlike areas of sports or show biz in which the stars often seem remote from the crowd, wrestling has nurtured a sense of intimacy between participants and fans. The bond is based on mutual respect and a kind of love, if you will. Ganz and brother-in-law Rick Hunnewell, like most of wrestling's diehard followers, take comfort in knowing that the trend will always move in whatever direction the fans want it to.
The wrestlers themselves have a joke that goes, "What has 14 teeth and an IQ of 50?" Answer: "The first 10 rows of any wrestling crowd." They don't mean it, of course. Their affection for the fans is heartfelt. "The thing that scares me most about wrestling fans," says Bobby Heenan, "is that they can vote and they can breed."
Heenan is an example of someone who developed a special rapport with the audience. "One night in Houston," he recalls, "this little old lady at ringside was giving me hell. She had just called me a no-good son of a bitch when her false teeth shot out of her mouth and flew into the ring. I stood there for about a minute with my boot over her plate and just grinned at her. She was pleading with me not to stomp on her teeth because they were the only ones she had. Finally, I just kicked them over to where she was sitting, and she picked them up off the ground, popped them back in her mouth and started up right where she'd left off, calling me a dirty s.o.b."
On another occasion, Heenan was being interviewed by a reporter from an Indianapolis newspaper when the body of a fan who had just died of a heart attack in the stands was brought into the dressing room to await the arrival of the coroner. The reporter asked Heenan how he felt about seeing a fan die under such circumstances. "As far as I'm concerned, it's one less person to spit on me," replied the Weasel.
Spot, one of the Moondogs (Rex is the other; there used to be three but, the story goes, King was killed chasing a car), almost got his tail bobbed one night in Louisiana by an elderly man with a knife who slashed him on the leg and hindquarters. "You don't want to get yourself spayed if you can possibly help it," says Spot.
Despite the much-discussed new demographics, very little has changed in the gouge halls, where the smoke and the smell of beer settle on you like stale sweat. A little more than a month ago at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, about 2,500 fans showed up for a WWF card that featured several members of McMahon's menagerie. An almost continuous fusillade of paper cups—some with the beer still in them—rained down on the ring, where Rocky Johnson and Alexis Smirnoff were working the undercard. During the application of a Smirnoff choke hold so prolonged it would have drained the breath of life from a less worthy opponent, a brawl erupted in the stands. Everyone turned to watch—including Johnson and Smirnoff, who recognized a superior production but who, nonetheless, continued to throttle each other until security arrived and saved the promoters the indignity of having to split the gate.
Taking it all in from the second row was Jay (the Alaskan) York, an off-duty wrestler whose shaved head, neatly trimmed beard and menacing scowl disguise a sterling character. A young man with watery eyes and bad teeth appeared out of nowhere and plopped down into the seat next to the Alaskan. "I know you," the young man said. "Do you know how I know you? My wife cussed you out one time while you were in the ring. Yeah! She called you a dirty no-good faggot. And you told her to come back to your apartment, and you'd prove she was wrong." The Alaskan looks sheepish, but then the young man added, "That was great, man."
York's niece, who was sitting nearby during all this, later explained to an attractive woman who was combing beer out of her hair, "Jay's really sweet. And he really believes in Jesus Christ, Our Lord." Then she turned back to the ring and cheered loudly as Andre the Giant flayed Big John Studd with the chain the Junkyard Dog had attached to Studd's collar. Just outside the ropes, a fan kept insisting that flogging one's opponent with a chain was against the rules.
That was also the way many hardcore wrestling fans began to feel three years ago when McMahon set out to transform the WWF from a small but prospering fiefdom, operating almost exclusively in the Northeast, into an empire. "At that time there were respected territorial boundaries where you operated without fear of reprisal," says McMahon. "We had been very successful in the Northeast, and I felt we could be equally successful elsewhere. Even when I was a kid, my philosophy was basically, if I wanted something and somebody else didn't want me to have it, the worst that could happen was I might get the hell kicked out of me. So we decided to disassociate ourselves from the other promoters and make a lot of enemies all at once. I must say, we've been very successful at that." Even Vince McMahon Sr., from whom Junior—as he is known in the business—had inherited his territory, was opposed to his son's expansionist designs. "Had my dad known at the time I bought him out what my plans were," McMahon says, "he would never have sold his stock to me."
McMahon took steps to "nationalize" wrestling promotions in other parts of the country, (see box on page 38). But his real marketing masterstroke fell into place last June, when he persuaded rock colorburst Cyndi Lauper to front the hype bandwagon that her manager-boyfriend, David Wolff, later dubbed "the rock and wrestling connection." Lauper had become the hottest attraction in the music world following the release of She's So Unusual, her debut album which produced four Top 5 singles. But when she made her first appearance last June on Piper's Pit, an interview show hosted by Piper, she quickly proved she was at home with the wrestlers. When Albano, who played the part of her father in Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun video, tried to take credit for her success, Cyndi merely demurred. But when Albano—emerging from beneath a grotesque meringue of facial hair, rubber bands and morsels of food that made him look like Jabba the Hutt—had the pierced cheek to call her a "broad," Lauper commenced beating the Captain and Piper over their heads with her purse. She called Albano a "fat bag of wind" and "an amoeba," and, given the fact that he was sitting right thereat the time—presenting the evidence for the prosecution, as it were—she seemed to have a very good point.
A month later, Lauper was "managing" top women's contender Wendi Richter. Under Lauper's guidance, Richter quickly took the WWF's women's title from the Fabulous Moolah, who had held it since 1958, when a little Moolah went a long way. Albano, meanwhile, became infuriated by Lauper's impressive managerial debut and insisted that she was "ungrateful." Piper remarked that she was a "scuzzbag."
Somewhere in the midst of all the eye-gouging, haircutting, and name-calling, WrestleMania was born. For the benefit of those who chose to go to the ballet that night, WrestleMania was held on March 31 in Madison Square Garden and beamed live to 200 closed-circuit outlets across the country. It pitted babyfaces Hulk and Mr. T, representing Lauper and the forces of good, against arch-heels Piper and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff. As a concept, WrestleMania proved to be a direct conceptual descendant of the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon jump. Which is to say, one of the biggest media events in the gassy history of hype. McMahon's promotional work for WrestleMania was brilliant, successfully propagating the Big Lie that wrestling had somehow become the new barometer of hip for the '80s. MTV willingly abetted McMahon in this deception by carrying two of the WWF's "grudge" matches live in March and by cutting to taped "interviews" with Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro in a way that made it appear that both women were actually at the matches. In fact, Steinem and Ferraro had made their remarks while attending Ms. magazine's Women of the Year breakfast in January, at which Lauper was also an honoree. Lauper had asked her new friends Gloria and Gerry to say something unkind about the villainous Roddy Piper, and they happily obliged. "He's a disgrace to rock and roll," said Steinem. "He certainly is not fit to wear a skirt." Ferraro challenged Piper to "come out and fight like a man."
When those two film clips started to turn up on MTV about as often as Madonna's lower lip, Ferraro said she'd been duped. Insisting she never went to wrestling matches, Ferraro also said she had been assured her comments would be used "in good taste." "Maybe I should have known better," she says now.
The Hulkster and Mr. T, meanwhile, were bouncing from talk show to talk show, spreading goodwill wherever they went. At one point Hogan was asked by cable-TV host Richard Belzer to demonstrate a wrestling hold. The Hulk put him in a front chinlock, whereupon Belzer was rendered null and void, almost permanently. Belzer slumped to the floor unconscious, waking up moments later in a pool of his own blood. Belzer, who received eight stitches on his head, called the incident "vicious and sickening," then placed a full-page ad in the New York Post announcing it would be replayed five nights later, just in case anybody hadn't been sufficiently grossed out the first time. Should Belzer be thinking about suing, he might have company in 20/20 reporter John Stossel, who claims to have suffered pain and ringing in his ears as the result of David (Dr. D) Davis's boxing his ears during an interview in December.
WrestleMania was a magnificent spectacle and probably enough of a success financially to consolidate McMahon's hammerlock on wrestling. The featured match came to a creative, if predictable, conclusion. First Piper and Orndorff teamed up to perform a double Atomic Spine-breaker on Hogan. Then guest referee Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring to issue them a warning. While that was going on. Cowboy Bob Orton, Piper's nefarious bodyguard, sneaked up behind the Hulkster and was about to bash him on the cranium with the cast he had on his right arm. when Hogan alertly stepped aside. Orton's blow connected with the preening Orndorff, knocking him even more senseless than he was in the first place. The Hulkster then applied the pin, at which point an outraged Piper clotheslined the working referee and stalked off. When Mr. Wonderful finally regained consciousness and saw the Hulk and Mr. T in wild celebration, he was disconsolate. "I guess I have no friends at all," he muttered darkly.
No friends at all is precisely what McMahon has among wrestling traditionalists and, more particularly, in the old-boy network of regional promoters. "I can't speak real highly of his caliber of wrestlers if in two weeks an actor like Mr. T can be transformed into someone capable of taking on his top pros," says Verne Gagne of the rival Pro Wrestling USA. "In his bouts, one guy always goes out and squashes the other," adds Joel Watts of Mid-South wrestling. "He plays on the personalities of the wrestlers, making them out to be freaks or something. I think he's generating a fad that will pass away."
One thing that McMahon's critics object to most frequently is the way he has tampered with wrestling's traditional, if theatrical, mix. "What separates McMahon's philosophy from everyone else's is that he deliberately tries to make everything as ridiculous as possible, whereas most of the others manage to do it unintentionally," says Dave Meltzer, the 24-year-old publisher of an exhaustive triweekly newsletter called the Wrestling Observer. "The TV ratings have been good for the last 10 years," says Meltzer, "but when McMahon started bragging about them, suddenly people began to notice. Then you started to hear, 'Wow, they're selling out the Garden every month.' Well, wrestling has been selling out the Garden every month for the past 15 years." And what of the new demographics? "That's all a New York phenomenon," says Meltzer, who lives in Northern California. "I go to WWF shows out here, and it's the same demographics as it's always been. The only difference is that the WWF show is a lot rowdier because they do the whole ethnic thing to incite the crowd."
The ethnic thing consists in large part of the race-baiting, homosexual-baiting, xenophobic bluster of villains like Piper and Orndorff. "That's not anything new to wrestling," says Meltzer. "But the WWF exploits racism more than any promotion I've ever seen. They exploit ethnic stereotypes, and by doing so they trivialize racism. Everybody buys it and thinks it's chic to laugh at somebody who calls blacks 'boy.' " Meltzer cites the Junkyard Dog, who is black, as an example of McMahon's handiwork. "When he was with Mid-South, he was one of the 10 best interviews in wrestling," says Meltzer. "He was almost like a philosopher to the black fans in the South. Now he goes into New York, and he barks his interviews."
The Dog was averaging nearly $150,000 a year before he started barking for McMahon in 1984. This year he expects to make $250,000. "Nobody in my family could believe the money I was making," the Dog sniffs. "They thought I was selling drugs." The Dog has made enough money to bury some in his backyard for when he retires, but there is no pension and no disability insurance if he suffers a serious injury.
Top wrestling performers work as many as 10 matches in a week, including studio bouts that are staged strictly for television. Then they follow in the wake of their videotapes from town to town. "TV is the most important part of our profession," says Big John Studd. "It's actually more important than what we do in the ring."
By being the first promoter to fully grasp the importance of TV, McMahon was able to use the medium as a weapon against his competition. "He's seriously trying to put us out of business," says Watts. Meltzer theorizes that McMahon is purposely overexposing wrestling on TV to force the weak promotions to go belly-up. "Then, after this thing burns to the ground," says Meltzer, "he hopes to be around to pick up the pieces and rebuild the new society."
Love his concept!